Tag Archives: history

What sort of beer is Ale and Lager?

Today, at work, a man approaches me and asks me this:

“I am looking to try a new beer.  I am an ale and lager sort of guy.  What can you recommend?”

For the many of you out there that already know the difference between ale and lager, this statement should make you want to pound your head against the wall.  For the few that don’t, let me break it down for you.  All beer falls into one of two categories, those being ales or lagers.  Ales use a top fermenting yeast and ferment at relatively warm temperatures while lagers use a bottom fermenting yeast and require much colder temperatures to become active.  So basically, without realizing it, this guy told me he likes ALL beers.

I wish I could say that the above statement is unique.  Sadly, it is one of the most common things I hear working at a beer bar.  One of the first bits of knowledge that the inquisitive beer lover seeks is the difference between ale and lager.  Most casual drinkers never bother to find out and so the majority of those out there don’t have a clue.  For those that are here seeking the difference, the short answer is above, but allow me to go into the details about what these terms have meant throughout history.

The History of Ale

For much of beers history, hops were not used in the recipe.  Instead, a combination of other spices were used to balance the sweetness of the malted grains.  This mixture, though it differed from place to place, was known as gruit.  In many places, such as Germany, brewers were legally required to purchase gruit from whomever held the local right to sell it.  This was almost always the ruling power in the area and so this requirement essentially equated to an early form of tax on beer.

It wasn’t until around the year 1000 CE that hops began to be used in beer.  They first appear in Northern Germany in independent cities that were beyond control of the Church and so were allowed to use what ever ingredients that they chose in their recipes.  Word got around Europe,  albeit slowly, and by the year 1500 CE hops began to be used in England.

With the introduction of the uses of hops in brewing, the English began referring to the new hopped beverage as “beer” and the traditional unhopped stuff as “ale.”  By the year 1600, however, nearly all beers brewed in England utilized hops, and so the terms “ale” and “beer” became synonymous.  For centuries “ale” fell out of favor and beer was the word for everyone’s favorite drink.

Things changed again in the 18th century, when porter, stout and pale ale were introduced to the English drinker.  The term “beer” began to be used to refer to porter and stout while “ale” came to designate both the pale, bitter beers that were beginning to pop up around England, as well as the brown, mild beers that for ages had been known simply as “mild.”  The modern definition of ale would only emerge after the Lager Revolution in the middle of the 19th century.

The Evolution of Lager

For thousands of years, yeast was a mystery.  No one knew how wort turned into beer, they just knew that if they followed a few practices passed down to them, magic would happen.  Brewers yeast naturally grows on the surface of grapes.  Often, whole grapes were thrown into the mix, jump starting the process.  Vikings used to stir their brews with a stick that had been passed down from generation to generation.  They believed that the stick held magical properties that produced the beer they sought.  It is pretty clear to us that the stick simply had dried yeast left on it from the last brew it was used to stir.

Jump forward a half a millennium or so to Bavaria and you will discover that the original text of the Reinheitsgebot in 1516 restricts brewers to only three ingredients: Barley, hops, and water.  It would still be a few hundred years before the role of yeast was understood.

In 1553, in a continued effort to control beers purity, summer brewing was outlawed by authorities in Bavaria.  For ages, Bavarian brewers had realized that even when the recipes were exactly identical, beers brewed in the summer tasted different than beers brewed in the winter.  No single yeast cultures existed back then, and so the yeast that fermented their beers was certainly a mix of both the ale and lager species, along with a few wild yeasts here and there.  During the hotter summer months, the warmer fermenting ale yeasts became active, while during the colder months these yeasts went dormant and lager yeasts took over.  While drinkers in Bavaria enjoyed the fruity, spicy beers that were produced in the summer, warmer temps left too much room for error.  Summer brews often suffered from off flavors, yet were still passed on to the consumer.  In order to minimize the chance that bad beer was put up for sale, the summer brewing ban was put into place.  Without realizing it, the Bavarian authorities had banned ale brewing as well.

In German, beer came to be known as Lagerbier, or “beer brewed for keeping” since it was often stored in cool caves through the summer months so that it would be ready to drink by fall.  Over the next three centuries, Bavaria’s reputation for brewing outstanding bottom fermenting lagerbiers  spread.  These beers began to be replicated, first by Bohemian brewers in Plzen in the middle of the 19th century, then by brewers all over Europe.  This is when English speakers adopted the shorted version “lager” to describe bottom fermenting beers that were matured at cold temperatures.

An entire post can easily be dedicated to the Lager Revolution and its resonant effects on beer today, and one certainly will be.  For now, let this be enough to satisfy any readers out there about the origins of ale and lager.

I would also like to invite any readers out there to comment and let me know of any errors I may have made.  These articles are written based on the research I have done for the Certified Cicerone exam, and so the research is by no means compete.  I will look into any inaccuracies brought forward and possibly edit the post based on this new information.

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Posted by on November 2, 2011 in Ale, Beer History, Lager


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Beer Vs. Wine: Can’t we just get along

“The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.” — Thucydides (460BC—395BC), Greek historian.

There is a line that runs through Europe above which grapes do not grow.  The modern nations of France, Italy, Spain and Greece all lie below this line, while all of the great beer drinking nations such as Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Great Britain lie above it.  In the time before the Common Era, the great empires of Greece and Rome dominated Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East.  They saw the drink of their home land as civilized and associated the drink of their conquered territories as barbarian.  It is not hard to imagine that, conversely, these “barbarians” hated the drink of their uninvited and often cruel ruling class almost as much as they hated the conquerors themselves.

My seriously lame ass reproduction of The Grape Line. I need more practice with paint.

This attitude has resonated throughout western history until today.  Just recently, beer was banned at the royal wedding because it was deemed an inappropriate drink to be served in the Queen’s presence.  Imagine that! A drink that has had an immeasurable impact on Britain’s history is shunned in preference to a drink that has ZERO domestic origins.  What gives?

Prohibition, in this country, didn’t help beers reputation much either.  The 18th amendment ensured that all legal consumption of beer and wine ceased (except for religious purposes).  In the decades after the nation emerged from the “noble experiment,” the quality of domestic beer plummeted.  An entire generation had grown up being told that alcohol was wrong.  This, of course, didn’t stop them from consuming.  It did, however,  lower their standards substantially.  American were used to drinking anything they could get their hands on.  Few of the breweries that survived maintained their pre-prohibition quality.  Most began marketing their beer to the lowest common denominator, and trying to make it as cheap as possible.  Brewing, as an art, was mostly dead.

While wine suffered the same sort of hit in the US during Prohibition, it’s reputation was able to bounce back, thanks largely to the European wine making scene.  Once the Europeans were able to recover from the devastating war, they began exporting wine to the US.  Prices were high thanks to the cost of export, and so this ensured that only the wealthy had access to it.

Today, things are changing.  Not only are domestic wineries producing world class wine that most Americans can afford, but craft breweries are popping up all over, producing beers with character, and reviving the lost art of brewing. While some might still snobbishly see a glass of Bordeaux as infinitely superior than anything from the beer section of their local specialty shop, most have abandoned this mentality.  Everyone has a preference, of course.  I imagine most people reading this site prefer beer.  As beer drinkers it is important that we not take on the same attitude of superiority as wine drinkers of the past, and instead embrace both drinks for their merits.

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Posted by on October 21, 2011 in Beer History


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